Water is undoubtedly the most widespread substance on earth. It is also one of the most enduring symbols of life, regeneration, purity and hope. Especially for civilizations around the Mediterranean, water represents a very strong link with the sacred, with nature, with social status and expectations as well as with various aspects of culture. All of these are integral part of our heritage.
At the same time water is today one of the most valuable resources, anywhere on earth, but this is especially true for the Mediterranean region. With just 3% of the world’s freshwater resources and more than half the world’s ‘water poor’ population, the Mediterranean is faced with the vital issue of access to this valuable resource. Today the impacts of climate change, desertification, biodiversity loss, overpopulation and overconsumption, intensive agriculture and mass tourism, result in a complex system of interrelated problems affecting all aspects of everyday life of the Mediterranean peoples.
But how did our ancestors used to cope with water scarcity in the past?
Since antiquity all sources of water, rivers, lakes, springs, underground resources and rainwater were exploited through sophisticated systems, being always relevant to and in proportion with the geomorphology, the topography, and the local hydrological and climatic conditions. Such wise practices were the result of century old evolution of practices and knowledge based on observations and continuous experimentation and innovation. They were well adapted to the needs of the respective societies and the environments where they lived and were able to guarantee an adequate level of water supply to settlements and cultivations for centuries.
Over millennia, the know-how and technology used throughout the region for water collection, storage, distribution and flooding emergency response, were transferred between civilizations and they were cross fertilized with parallel incorporation and capitalization with emerging technological innovations. Remnants of this invaluable collective water related cultural heritage, such as cisterns, wells, canals, small scale dams, pipelines, aqueducts, reservoirs for flood protection etc. are found today scattered around the basin, forming a unique, interlinked mosaic. This articulated variety of water systems contributed to the shaping, over time, of the unique Mediterranean landscape.
Unfortunately, many of these remnants are not sufficiently valorized today, resulting in destruction and loss of many of them and cultural ‘poverty’ of the local communities despite the past ‘wealth’. Subsequently, their potential for becoming motors of local socio-economic development, e.g. through tourism, is often not yet recognized and remains untapped. Furthermore, more and more people, particularly the younger generations tend to drift away from traditional knowledge, they get isolated from their roots, thereby feeling an increasing loss of identity. Important heritage that has survived for centuries is lost in the vicinity of modern technologies.
Actually, the traditional heritage is an inexhaustible source of inspirations techniques, discoveries and solutions; it indicates research pathways and uncontroversial ways of operating for today’s scientists; it conceals fascinating possibilities of forgotten models of existence previously thought to be sound and self evident. To create sustainable solutions for water related problems today and account for the needs of people and nature, we need to better understand the cultural significance of water (including emotional, intellectual, moral, social and spiritual) and its evolution over time and space.
The awareness of both the intrinsic and functional value of heritage calls for a new paradigm, directed, on the one hand to strengthen the sense of common Mediterranean water heritage with various origins, which belongs to all, and, on the other hand, to make sure that past best practices in water management are made known and if necessary adapted accordingly to meet modern needs. The diverse human interaction with water in the various cultures provides the very basis for creatively resolving the above mentioned problems. Understanding why and how diverse beliefs and practices have evolved could provide precious lessons for today’s urgent need to move on to a sustainable planetary new water culture.